Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Trails
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses one of Colorado’s most distinctive landscapes. Trapped between the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, dunes as high as 700 feet reform in ever-changing patterns and shapes. This expanse of sand provides the setting for an utterly wild and lonely wilderness experience. The Great Sand Dunes result from the congruence of desert, wind, and mountains. The San Luis Valley lies in the rain shadow of the San Juan Mountains and receives but 8 inches of precipitation annually, making it one of the state’s driest deserts. Predominant southwesterly winds blow across the valley almost perpendicularly to the trend of the Sangre de Cristos. Several low passes—Hayden, Music, and Medano—break the peaks. As the wind sweeps across the valley and rises to roar through Medano Pass, it picks up sand grains and piles them against the mountains. Some might wonder why the dunes don’t advance higher into the mountains. Geologists hypothesize that occasional shifts in wind direction drive the dunes back from the mountains or that several creeks along the dunes’ perimeter help maintain their position. In any case, the dunes do not move much, though winds alter their shapes. The vegetation that survives here is as uncommon as the landscape. Ecologists define this area as the saltbush-greasewood ecosystem of the Rocky Mountain forest province, and the Great Sand Dunes comprise the only wilderness area in the nation with such an environment. The predominant species here include Indian ricegrass, blowout grass, and scurfpea. East of Medano Creek, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, pinyon pines and juniper take hold where the ground provides firmer footing for both hikers and plants. Spring and fall bring welcome relief from summer’s blistering heat and winter’s numbing cold in the San Luis Valley. Formed of quartz and volcanic materials from the San Juan Mountains, the dunes are darker than most beach sand, and they consequently act as solar collectors. In midsummer, the sand’s heat can quickly penetrate even the thickest-soled shoes. In the winter, the San Luis Valley experiences some of Colorado’s coldest temperatures, with lows frequently dropping to –30° or –40°. The Great Sand Dunes became one of America’s most diverse national parks with the passage of legislation in 2000 creating the vastly expanded Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Great Sand Dunes officially became America’s newest national park in September 2004. The legislation resulted from a grassroots movement in the San Luis Valley that wanted to enhance tourism by upgrading the existing national monument into a national park (local business owners figured more tourists plan vacations around national park visits than trips to national monuments). This trail guide includes descriptions of Medano Lake, The Dunes, Mosca Pass Trail, Sand Creek, and Sand Ramp Trail.
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Directions to: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Trailsprint directions
Trail Statistics & Information
|Skill Level||Easy to Strenuous|
|Season||Best Spring through Fall|
|Trailhead Elevation||7,900 ft|
|Top Elevation||13,500 ft|
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